Two Groups of Aces

Here are two ranked groups of pitchers:

Group A
1. Max Scherzer
2. Chris Sale
3. Corey Kluber
4. Clayton Kershaw
5. Sonny Gray
6. Jake Arrieta
7. Dallas Keuchel
8. David Price
9. Zack Greinke
10. Chris Archer
11. Michael Pineda
12. Jacob deGrom
13. Clay Buchholz
14. AJ Burnett
15. Johnny Cueto
16. Carlos Carrasco
17. Gerrit Cole
18. Lance Lynn
19. Jeff Samardzija
20. Jordan Zimmermann

Group B
1. Zack Greinke
2. Dallas Keuchel
3. Sonny Gray
4. Max Scherzer
5. AJ Burnett
6. Chris Sale
7. David Price
8. Jacob deGrom
9. Hector Santiago
10. Felix Hernandez
11. Yovani Gallardo
12. Jake Arrieta
13. Carlos Martinez
14. Gerrit Cole
15. Shelby Miller
16. Johnny Cueto
17. Kyle Gibson
18. Chris Archer
19. Wei-Yin Chen
20. Ubaldo Jimenez

Which group better represents the best pitchers in Major League Baseball? Group A has the last two years’ Cy Young Award winners (Scherzer, Kluber, and Kershaw twice) in the top four. The guys you may be surprised to see so far up are probably Arrieta, Buchholz, and Carrasco. Group B includes several of the same guys and King Felix. It also has Santiago, Gallardo, Gibson, and Chen, four names I’ve never heard in a best-pitcher conversation. I’d argue pretty strongly that Group A is a close approximation of a Best Pitchers in the Game list. Group B is an amalgamation of superstars, solid pitchers having good years, and a few flukes.

But wait… Group B has 14 guys pitching in this year’s All-Star game, with the game’s starters at the top. Group A has 12 All-Stars, with a guy who missed the cut at #3 and the last replacement from the NL roster at #4. Somebody must think Group B is full of the game’s best pitchers.

If you haven’t already figured this out, Group A is a ranking of the pitchers with the most WAR, per fangraphs, in the first half this year. Group B is a ranking of the pitchers with the best RA9-WAR. Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR considers only strikeouts, walks, and home runs when evaluating a pitcher’s success over the innings he’s pitched. RA9-WAR is more similar to Baseball-Reference’s version, based on runs allowed while a pitcher is on the mound.

It’s not surprising that the players and managers who pick the All-Star pitchers prefer the guys with the shiny ERAs. In a lot of cases, these guys have the most wins as well, since fewer runs have been given up while they’re on the field. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding low-ERA pitchers. That said, players like Lorenzo Cain and Yadier Molina were selected to the All-Star Game largely because of their role in run prevention, so pitchers won’t be the only players on the field who are skilled at keeping runs off the board. As far as I know, no All-Star voter ever looked for the position players whose teams gave up the fewest runs while they were on the field and anointed them All-Stars without honing in on their specific roles in run prevention. Why, then, do we do just that with pitchers?

I suppose the answer is history. Wins have been around forever and are easy to understand (if not easy to explain). ERA has been along nearly as long and has been considered among the more sophisticated metrics for a long time. FIP, upon which fWAR is based, is rarely shown on a newspaper page or a TV screen. When a player sees that Corey Kluber is 4-10 this year, he assumes Kluber is having a bad year. Kluber’s 3.38 ERA disproves that assumption quickly, but may not suggest greatness. The 2.51 FIP, on the other hand, tells a different story, one in which our protagonist is the same pitcher he was when he won the AL Cy Young last season. Is there any reason to believe Kluber’s ERA tells us more about how he’s pitched than his FIP?

To corroborate my opinion that Group A is a more accurate ranking of the game’s best pitchers, let’s look at each pitcher’s RA9-WAR from last season.

Group A
1. Max Scherzer 5.3
2. Chris Sale 6.2
3. Corey Kluber 7.0
4. Clayton Kershaw 7.9

5. Sonny Gray 4.3
6. Jake Arrieta 4.7
7. Dallas Keuchel 4.9
8. David Price 4.3
9. Zack Greinke 4.4
10. Chris Archer 2.4
11. Michael Pineda 3.1
12. Jacob deGrom 3.5
13. Clay Buchholz -0.5
14. AJ Burnett -0.5
15. Johnny Cueto 7.7
16. Carlos Carrasco 3.3
17. Gerrit Cole 1.7
18. Lance Lynn 4.3
19. Jeff Samardzija 4.1
20. Jordan Zimmermann 4.8

Group B
1. Zack Greinke 4.4
2. Dallas Keuchel 4.9
3. Sonny Gray 4.3
4. Max Scherzer 5.3
5. AJ Burnett -0.5
6. Chris Sale 6.2
7. David Price 4.3
8. Jacob deGrom 3.5
9. Hector Santiago 0.7
10. Felix Hernandez 7.5
11. Yovani Gallardo 2.3

12. Jake Arrieta 4.7
13. Carlos Martinez 0.3
14. Gerrit Cole 1.7
15. Shelby Miller 2.2
16. Johnny Cueto 7.7
17. Kyle Gibson 1.4
18. Chris Archer 2.4
19. Wei-Yin Chen 3.4
20. Ubaldo Jimenez 0.6

A few ways to tackle the question: First, the eight players unique to Group A were worth 34 total RA9-WAR in 2014; the eight unique to Group B were worth 18.4 (all 16 are italicized above). That means, based on the metric at which Group B has excelled this year, the players in Group A but not Group B were almost twice as valuable last year. Of course, we’re dealing with small samples and eliminating 60 percent of each group only makes the samples smaller.

Another method would be to weight the WAR figures, counting the #1 guy 20 times, the #2 guy 19 times, and so on, down to the #20 guy, whose WAR counts just once. Doing this, we get a weighted average WAR of 4.65 for Group A and 3.72 for Group B. That’s a pretty big gap.

It would be specious to try to declare definitively that this data proves that FIP is a better evaluator of pitchers than ERA (or RA9, to be more precise). However, it’s widely acknowledged that FIP has more predictive value, and I would argue that it has more descriptive value as well. Kershaw and Kluber have struck out batters and avoided walks and home runs at elite levels in 2015. Keuchel has fewer strikeouts, more walks, and a likely unsustainable home run rate (.46/9 innings) and Batting Average on Balls in Play (.255). Greinke has fewer strikeouts, an insanely low BABIP (.233, thanks in large part to the Dodgers’ defense), and an unsustainable strand rate (89%). Keuchel and Greinke have been major parts of better run prevention efforts; Kluber and Kershaw have been better pitchers. Scherzer and Sale have been better yet.

Every pitcher in Group B is having a great season. Every pitcher in Group A is pitching extremely well this year too. With due respect to the emerging Carlos Martinez and the resurgent Ubaldo Jimenez, we should all expect bigger things from Group A over the rest of the season. We should probably be watching Kluber and Pineda in the All-Star Game tonight too.

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The June-to-May All-Stars

Several years ago, my friend Dan McCloskey, whom I hadn’t met then, introduced me to the concept of the past-calendar-year All-Star team.  His theory, if I may paraphrase, goes something like this: for those who believe an All-Star Game appearance should reward recent excellence, as opposed to lifetime achievement, the first two or three months of a season aren’t a significant enough sample size to justify such honors, and that second-half accomplishments tend to go unrewarded when fans vote for the guy batting .340 in April and May over the guy who’s been very good since last summer.

It may be a little early to fill out an All-Star ballot, but is already telling us who’s winning (hint: it’s the Royals), and a calendar month just ended, so why not take a look at the guys who put up the best numbers from last June to this May?

We’ll start in the American League.

Catcher- Russell Martin, Blue Jays and Stephen Vogt, Athletics
Martin’s only been back in the American League for two months of our sample, but he’s been nearly the best catcher in the game over the past year and it would be awkward to put him on the NL team. Vogt has been a revelation this year, hitting .322/.411/.611 so far, and he accrued all of his 1.4 fWAR in 2014 over the last four months of the season. Sal Perez could get the nod here for his game calling skills, but since raking last April and May, he’s actually been a below-average hitter for a year now.

First Base- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Yeah, he’s still pretty good. .314/.392/.530 since last June, with 27 homers. The AL is light on great first basemen, so we’ll save the second 1B spot for someone else.

Second Base- Jose Altuve, Astros and Brian Dozier, Twins
These two have identical 4.7 fWARs, and both have earned those wins with their bats. Altuve’s hitting .333 with 51 steals and Dozier has 21 homers and 12 steals over the past year. Ian Kinsler’s been worth similar value, almost entirely with his glove. There’s plenty of depth here- Ben Zobrist and Robinson Cano top 3.5 WAR almost entirely based on their 2014 finished, and Jason Kipnis is the AL WAR leader this year.

Shortstop- Erick Aybar, Angels
I wanted to give this nod to Jose Iglesias, who’s hitting .338 this year and plays the best defense this side of Andrelton Simmons, but Aybar’s got over four times the plate appearances and almost three times the fWAR since June, thanks to nearly league-average offense and 10.3 fielding runs above average. Brad Miller’s another limited-action candidate, his 114 wRC+ topping all AL shortstops other than Iglesias.

Third Base- Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays, Adrian Beltre, Rangers, and Kyle Seager, Mariners
I keep wondering when Donaldson’s going to stop being the best non-Trout player in the American League. I should probably stop wondering. He’s hit 29 homers over the last year, adding a decent .339 OBP and the best third-base defense in the American League (13.5 FRAA). Age can’t seem to stop Beltre, who’s hitting .309/.363/.471 with his typical great defense this last year. And Seager’s 5.2 fWAR, which are also heavy on defense but reflect 26 bombs of his own, made it an easy choice to take three third baseman on my 25-man AL roster. Any of these guys could serve as the backup shortstop.

Outfield- Mike Trout, Angels, Alex Gordon, Royals, Adam Jones, Orioles, Lorenzo Cain, Royals, Michael Brantley, Indians, and Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
You don’t need me to tell you what Trout’s done. Brantley’s here for his offense (.326/.387/.495). Cain and Kiermaier have been two of the best defenders in the game by DRAA (21.3 and 24.7, respectively), while holding their own with the bats, and Gordon and Jones are excellent on both sides.

Designated Hitter- Jose Abreu, White Sox
Despite a rather modest start to this year (125 wRC+), Abreu’s hitting .323/.390/.544 with 29 homers over the past year. That’s a better wRC+ (158) than Nelson Cruz’s (140), without the legendarily bad outfield defense.

Starting Pitchers- Corey Kluber, Indians, Felix Hernandez, Mariners, David Price, Tigers, Chris Sale, White Sox, Dallas Keuchel, Astros, Chris Archer, Rays, and Sonny Gray, Athletics
By FIP WAR, Kluber (7.0) has been the league’s best. By RA9-WAR, it’s Felix and his 1.90 ERA. Price’s 244 K are second to Kluber, while Sale’s K/BB (231/45) are even more impressive. Keuchel (2.60) and Archer (2.70) are here for their ERAs, knocking Jose Quintana and his 4.9 fWAR (5th best, .1 behind Felix) just off the page.

Relief Pitchers- Dellin Betances, Yankees and Wade Davis, Royals
Betances in 86 2/3 innings: 128 K, 26 BB, 3 HR, 0.93 ERA, 1.65 FIP. Davis in 69 2/3 innings: 91 K, 20 BB, 0 HR, 0.52 ERA, 1.41 FIP, 4 runs allowed.

…and then the National League…

Catcher- Buster Posey, Giants and Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Posey, when healthy, has never been anything but a superstar. The game-calling metrics don’t love him, but he’s hit .322/.374/.508 and has 7.9 DRAA over the past year. Lucroy’s been injured and ineffective this year, but he was the best player in the National League last year.

First Base- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs, Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks, and Lucas Duda, Mets
As great as Goldschmidt, Adrian Gonzalez, and Joey Votto have been this year, it’s Rizzo who laps the field with 6.4 WAR since last June. He’s hitting .305/.402/.575 with 33 homers and non-terrible defense. Goldschmidt missed mush of last year due to injury, but he’s still hitting a crazy .325/.450/.617 in 445 PA. Duda, with 5.1 WAR, looked like he might be the most valuable player to get cut from one of these teams, but with a dearth of great NL outfielders, he makes this one.

Second Base- Dee Gordon, Marlins
Where did this guy come from? His .319 average is diluted by a subpar late-2014 (he’s hitting .377 in ’15), but he’s stolen 50 bases since last June 1 and the defensive metrics like him. No need for a second keystone sacker.

Shortstop- Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals and Brandon Crawford, Giants
Peralta has a .355 OPB and 20 home runs over the last year, and one of the NL’s best gloves. Crawford’s more than just the arm that kept Alex Gordon from scoring the tying run in Game Seven last year. He’s got a .346 OBP and 8.3 DRAA.

Third Base- Todd Frazier, Reds, Anthony Rendon, Nationals, and Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
Carpeter gets plenty of screen time in October, but would you have guessed that Frazier has hit 36 dingers and stolen 22 bases since last June? Or that Rendon’s 145 wRC+ is the best among all third baseman over that stretch? Third base is just as deep in the NL as in the AL, which is why you’ll see the fourth guy on the next list.

Outfield- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates, Bryce Harper, Nationals, Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins, and Josh Harrison, Pirates
There’s a clear delineation here between the starters and the backups. Cutch is the NL’s best player for the full term (163 wRC+, 6.3 WAR), while Harper seems to have assumed that title in 2015, and Stanton, who has 36 homers since last June, always seems poised to make a run. Harrison’s here for his bat (.304 average), legs (20 steals), and his defensive versatility.

Starting Pitchers- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, Max Scherzer, Nationals, Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals, Jake Arrieta, Cubs, Cole Hamels, Phillies, Jacob deGrom, Mets, Jon Lester, Cubs, Zack Greinke, Dodgers, , and Johnny Cueto, Reds
I’ll start with this- it feels ridiculous to leave Madison Bumgarner and his postseason heroics off this team, but I couldn’t cut any of these nine guys. Each of the nine has a better ERA than Bum’s 3.07 and all but Cueto has a better FIP than Bumgarner’s 3.33, and Cueto pitches his home games in a far more challenging environment than San Francisco.

Kershaw’s tops in both FIP WAR (8.1) and RA9 WAR (8.1). Scherzer’s been the best in the NL this year, and has a 2.36 FIP despite having pitched 2/3 of the games I’m counting in the tougher league. Lester has a 2.36 ERA with the same handicap. Hamels (7.8) is second in RA9 WAR, while Arrieta (6.1) trails only Kershaw and Scherzer in FIP WAR. deGrom’s given up just 10 homers in 183 2/3 innings. Zimmermann, with a 2.42 ERA in over 200 innings, been the best pitcher in the best rotation in the game. Greinke’s 2.48 ERA over 203 1/3 innings is nearly as good.

Relief Pitcher- Aroldis Chapman, Reds
It’s hard to believe Craig Kimbrel doesn’t make this team, but at least a handful of NL relievers have been better over the past year. The most notable is Chapman, who’s struck out an absurd 17.11 batters per nine innings, good for a league-best 1.01 FIP despite more than half a walk per inning. Drew Storen (1.07 ERA) and Ken Giles (1.61) have been even better at run prevention, but Chapman’s thrown more innings (67 1/3) and has struck out 1 of every 2.1 batters he’s faced.

Just for fun, some starting lineups:

1. Trout, cf
2. Cabrera, 1b
3. Abreu, dh
4. Donaldson, 3b
5. Jones, rf
6. Gordon, lf
7. Altuve, 2b
8. Martin, c
9. Aybar, ss
Kluber, p

1. McCutchen, cf
2. Harper, lf
3. Stanton, rf
4. Goldschmidt, dh
5. Rizzo, 1b
6. Frazier, 3b
7. Posey, c
8. Peralta, ss
9. Gordon, 2b
Kershaw, p

I’ll take the National Leaguers.

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Greatest Active ’15

Almost five years ago, when this blog was Kris Bryant, certain it was full of potential impact but still trying to prove it was anything more than Luis Valbuena, I wrote about the greatest active players at each position at the time.  This was no scientific study- rather, it was a rumination on what “greatness” meant and how one could use Wins Above Replacement to balance accumulated value, peak talent, and current status.

Subjective as this assessment may have been, the results were solid.  Could one argue against the assertion that, in 2010, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols were the greatest active players in Major League Baseball?  Was there a “greater” active pitcher than Roy Halladay or a “greater” catcher than Ivan Rodriguez?

I came across this post recently, almost a baseball generation later.  My first impression was that both Rodriguez and Pujols have fallen ludicrously far since 2010, but that both are active, and it’s hard to imagine anyone passing them for the “greatest active” title in the five interceding years.  My second thought was the that game has changed tremendously in those five years, from the tail end of an extreme hitters’ era to the heart of a pitchers’ paradise, when older players are finding it harder to secure a job, while younger players are dominating the game to an extent not familiar to most living baseball fans. There aren’t many veterans in today’s game still putting up big numbers while their Hall of Fame tickets are all-but-punched.

With all this in mind, I think it’s time to renew this analysis with current numbers.  Rather than acknowledging the shortcomings of my 2010 model and trying to build a better one, I thought I would refresh the data under the same, admittedly dubious, framework.

Let’s give 2010 me the floor for a moment, shall we?

“…using fangraphs as a source:

Career WAR/10
Career WAR/150 games played (30 starts for starting pitchers)
Peak WAR season/2
Current season WAR/4

This way, our final number includes an accumulated value factor weighted slightly more than anything else (since it represents more than a year’s WAR for anyone who’s played more than 10 seasons), about one season’s WAR (assuming the average player plays 150 games per season) for average value throughout a player’s career, a half season’s WAR for peak value, and almost a quarter season’s war for current value, which matters in this discussion, but not to such an extent that a bad 2010 shouldn’t eliminate an aging candidate.”

“Current Season WAR”, in this case, represents complete 2014 WAR.  A month’s numbers are too volatile to assign any meaning to them that may unduly influence such weighty proceedings.

As I did in the first Obama administration, when I had but a single infant at home and found a gray hair maybe once a week under the right lights, I thought I would take a guess at the results before downloading the data and pretending my conclusions were anything but speculative. Here’s a layman’s take on the greatest active lineup:

C- Joe Mauer, or Buster Posey if we want an active catcher

1B- Pujols, with Miguel Cabrera mounting a challenge

2B- Chase Utley, though Robinson Cano must be dangerously close

SS- Um… Rollins? Tulowitzki? Ok, I’ll go with Tulo, based on the per 150 factor.

3B- Rodriguez, if we count him here despite the fact that he’ll probably retire with more games played as a shortstop than as a third baseman.  Adrian Beltre would make a more-than-adequate replacement.

OF- Ichiro, Beltran, and… could it be Trout, who had yet to turn three when Rodriguez made his big-league debut?

P- On accumulated value, it’s Hudson or Buehrle.  On peak and current greatness, it’s Kershaw or Felix.  I’ll go the middle route and take CC Sabathia.

Let’s test these assumptions against the formula established above.

Greatest Active Catcher

Joe Mauer

Mauer narrowly outpaces Buster Posey, 13.88 to 13.48, which suggests to me that the formula gives due credit to career value (Mauer’s 44.8 WAR nearly double Posey’s), rather than overcrediting Posey’s slightly higher peak, better average production (not weighed down by thirtysomething seasons at first base), or current value.  Victor Martinez comes in a relatively distant third.

Greatest Active First Baseman

Albert Pujols

This one’s still a blowout.  As great as Cabrera’s 2010s have been, he still lags Pujols’s impressive 6.27 WAR per 150 games, and Cabrera’s personal-best 7.4-WAR season would rank as the weakest season in Pujols’s seven-year prime (2003-2009).  The resurgent Mark Teixeira noses out the sill-great Adrian Gonzalez for third. David Ortiz, easily the greatest active DH, finishes between Teixeira and Gonzalez.

Greatest Active Second Baseman

Chase Utley

No surprise at the top, but despite how accustomed I’ve grown to seeing Ben Zobrist’s name hear the top of the annual WAR leaderboard, I’m still surprised to see him shown as “greater” than Cano, Dustin Pedroia, and Ian Kinsler, who finish third, fourth, and fifth, respectively.

Greatest Active Shortstop

Hanley Ramirez

The best thing to do here may be to anoint Rodriguez the greatest active shortstop and let one of the third-base runners-up take the title there, since Ramirez trails the top four at the hot corner.  For now, since I designated ARod a third baseman, we’ll give the nod to Hanley, who’s hardly resembled an infielder, let alone a shortstop, of late, but whose 13.5 greatness score beats out Tulo’s 12.70, Rollins’s 12.65, and Jose Reyes’s 11.99.

Greatest Active Third Baseman

Alex Rodriguez

For the first 90 or so years of organized baseball, third base was such a wasteland that Pie Traynor was widely regarded as the greatest player ever to play the position.  Traynor has roughly the same career WAR as Denny Lyons or Sherm Lollar.  Today, according to my framework, four of the nine greatest active position players are third basemen.  Even if we shift Rodriguez and his MLB-best 22.65 greatness score to shortstop and give Adrian Beltre (17.67) this title, we’re leaving David Wright (14.98) and Evan Longoria (14.57) out in the cold despite scores that would have topped the catcher or shortstop ratings or cracked a three-man outfield.  Josh Donaldson and Chase Headley also crack double digits, enough for an honorable mention at most other positions.

ARod is a DH now and was a shortstop for a long and illustrious prime, so there’s an easy out, but it’s only right to acknowledge, even in the post-Chipper-and-Rolen era, that we’re still in a golden age for third basemen.

Greatest Active Outfield

Mike Trout
Andrew McCutchen
Carlos Beltran

That’s right- the greatest active outfielder, by this measure, was two years old when the greatest active player made his MLB debut in July of 1994.  In three (almost) full seasons, Trout accumulated enough career value (29.4 WAR) to place him tenth among outfielders, .2 wins behind 13-year veteran Coco Crisp for ninth.  Not only is his 10.5-WAR season in 2013 the best by any active player, but his 139-game call-up in 2012 is also more valuable than any season recorded by any active player.  Among actives with at least 8 career WAR, Trout’s 8.95 WAR per 150 games played is 37% more than Rodriguez’s second-place figure and 53% better than any other outfielder’s count.  If it feels like Trout hasn’t been around long-enough, consider this: if Trout regresses to a league-average level (2 WAR in 150 games) for the next three seasons, at 26, he’ll still have been worth 5.93 WAR per 150, more than any other active outfielder.

McCutchen’s a bit of a surprise on this list as well.  His recent success (8.4 peak season; 6.8 last year; 5.85 WAR/150) is enough to trump Beltran’s 64 career WAR and Ichiro’s 57.3.  Including their 2014 seasons, even as just 1/11th or 1/12th of the final score, may not fairly assess Ichiro’s or Beltran’s greatness, but it may be a stretch to call either “active” at this point, so I’ll accept these results.

For the record, Matt Holliday finished a very close fourth, with Ichiro and Jacoby Ellsbury close behind.

Greatest Active Pitcher

Clayton Kershaw

This was a close one.  The reigning NL MVP rode last season’s 7.6 WAR and the highest WAR per 30 starts (5.48) to an even 15 greatness points, .96 ahead of runner-up Felix Hernandez. Felix, CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, and Justin Verlander round out the rotation, with Cliff Lee a 20th of a point off the pace.

Here’s a roster of the greatest active players by is method, with a couple of substitutions made to get players with higher greatness scores on the team ahead of players who led their positions:

1. Andrew McCutchen, lf
2. Mike Trout, cf
3. Albert Pujols, 1b
4. Alex Rodriguez, ss
5. Miguel Cabrera, dh
6. Carlos Beltran, rf
7. Adrian Beltre, 3b
8. Joe Mauer, c
9. Chase Utley, 2b

Clayton Kershaw, p
Felix Hernandez, p
CC Sabathia, p
Zack Greinke, p
Justin Verlander, p

David Wright, if
Ben Zobrist, util
Hanley Ramirez, ph
Matt Holliday, of
Buster Posey, c
Ichiro Suzuki, pr

For the record, a few things change if we don’t include 1/4 of each player’s 2014 WAR as a component of his greatness score. To wit:

Sabathia moves to the top of the pitcher list. Cliff Lee surges ahead of Verlander, Hernandez and Greinke into third place (behind Kershaw), knocking Greinke out of the five-man rotation.

Beltran leaps ahead of McCutchen as the second-best outfielder (McCutchen hangs on to third).

Dustin Pedroia leapfrogs Zobrist and Robinson Cano into the second spot in the 2b rankings, perhaps stealing Zobrist’s utility role on my all-greatest-active team.

A final thought: of the ten players who made this list in 2010, three- Rodriguez, Pujols, and Utley- are still active and still qualify. The other seven- Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, Ivan Rodriguez, and Roy Halladay- are now retired. No runner-up or honorable mention from the 2010 study ranks lower at his positional list this time around than he did then, with one exception- Tim Lincecum, who ranks just 21st among starting pitchers this time around after placing seventh last time. This suggests to me that young players with high WAR/150 and current-year WAR scores are not systematically overrated by the framework.

If I try this exercise again in another five years, some things are nearly certain. Trout will be at the top of the overall list or close to it. Kershaw and Hernandez would have to fall much harder than Lincecum has to drop out of the five-man rotation. Posey seems like a sure bet to eclipse Mauer, even if Mauer’s still active then. What we don’t know is whether there’s another Trout out there- a Bryant, Harper, or Machado, perhaps, who will provide so much value over the next five years that he’ll already be among the game’s greatest active players in 2020.

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How Important Is a Hot Start?

Here’s one I wrote for this week’s USA Today Sports Weekly:

This April, the Detroit Tigers came roaring out of the gate, mowing down opposing lineups and bludgeoning opposing pitchers with a relentless offensive attack. Their hot start may remind Tigers fans of the 1984 team, which opened 16-1 and rolled to a 104-win season and, to this date, the franchise’s last championship.

It’s equally likely, though, that Detroit’s season will more closely resemble that of the 2011 Cleveland Indians, who opened 12-4, only to finish 80-82, fifteen games behind the first-place Tigers. Past performance, particularly over a small sample, does not guarantee future results.

Perhaps more important than the predictive value of a hot start is the advantage those early wins give a team in the long race for the playoffs. The 2005 Chicago White Sox started 12-4, opening a six-game cushion over the Indians by April 21. When the White Sox and Indians finished the season with identical 87-59 records, those twelve early wins earned Chicago the division title and, ultimately, a championship, while the perhaps equally-talented Indians watched the playoffs from home, missing the Wild Card by two games.

Over the past ten seasons, 65 teams have won at least 60 percent of their games through the first ten percent of the season (defined as the date when all teams averaged sixteen games played). Those teams have averaged a .670 winning percentage over their first sixteen games, but over the remainder of the season, they’ve regressed to .523, a pace just short of 85 wins over a full season.

Over the same time period, teams with winning percentages between .400 and .599 over the first ten percent of the season have finished at .502, just three wins shy of the hotter-starting clubs over the remaining 146 games. Those three wins suggest some predictive value in a strong start- good teams are more likely to win in April, as they are in May or September- but certainly the sample of strong-starting teams is a mix of good teams and average teams riding some early luck or a soft April schedule.

How often do strong starts lead to playoff berths? With eight playoff teams through 2011 and ten starting in 2012, 29 percent of all teams over the past ten years have made the playoffs. Of the 65 teams in the strong-start set, 28, or 43 percent, made the playoffs. This is nine more teams than one would expect to make the playoffs, irrespective of their early-season results.

Coincidentally, over the same period, nine teams have made the playoffs by a margin less than or equal to the margin they established over the eventual runner-up in the first ten percent of the season.  The Boston Red Sox have had three such seasons, most recently in 2013, when they opened up a five-and-a-half-game lead over the Rays by April 19 and won the division by five games on their way a World Series title.   Tampa Bay was Boston’s equal for 90 percent of the season, but had to win a play-in game to make the Division Series because they couldn’t match Boston’s hot start.

One might expect from the conclusion above that teams who start the season on a cold streak tend to make up ground throughout the season, but perhaps not enough to close the gap.  The data suggests otherwise.  The 56 teams who won less than 40 percent of their games over the first ten percent of the season averaged just a .468 record the rest of the way, a full five games worse than the average-starting set and eight games behind the strong-starters.  Only five of these teams rallied to make the playoffs, the most recent being the 2013 Rays and Indians.  This apparent trend is likely influenced by the July trade deadline, when teams that got off to weak starts are more likely than others to sell off valuable assets and trudge to the finish line with a roster full of young players.

The 2015 Tigers are loaded with talent, and recent history tells us that they’re slightly more likely to make the playoffs because of their hot start.  There’s a lot of baseball to be played, and other teams may win more games over the remaining 90 percent of the season, but the wins Detroit banked in early April might just be the difference between more October baseball in Detroit and an extra month’s vacation.

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2015 Baseball Preview

Opening Day is less than two weeks away, which means we shouldn’t expect more than two or three pitchers to tear elbow ligaments before the season starts. That kind of confidence makes a season preview less of a fool’s errand by the day.

This year, I’m using the same data I compiled to list the 100 best players in the game to guess how well teams will perform this year. In case you need a refresher, I took a stab at each player’s 2015 WAR with a formula that weighted his 2014 WAR four times, his 2013 WAR twice, and his 2012 WAR once, then adjusted based on a standard aging curve and added or subtracted as much as one win based on subjective assessments of expected health and how well past WAR may reflect his current skills.

By adding every position player’s and starting pitcher’s projected WAR and a 51-win adjustment to balance the league to an 81-win average (it’s not unreasonable that a team full of replacement players might go 51-111, though most experts estimate a few wins worse than that), I came up with a baseline for each team’s ability. I then added or subtracted as many as three wins based on perceived quality of each team’s relief pitching and as many as two wins based on my estimate of the value the manager might add or subtract and formulated my official projection.

Only the Rockies got a full three-win adjustment, docked for their putrid bullpen (as if their rotation weren’t bad enough). The Indians, Giants, and Cubs fared the best here, each getting positive adjustments for both their relievers and their skippers.

Let’s look at team projections by division, starting with the National League:

NL East
1. Washington
2. Miami
3. New York
4. Atlanta
5. Philadelphia

If everything that can go wrong for the Nationals goes wrong, they might only win the division by five games. They might not even have the best record in baseball. My system is inherently conservative in that it starts every team with 51 wins and limits the number of players who can contribute more WAR, ignoring likely sub-replacement-level performances altogether. As a result, teams may be bunched together in the middle a bit too much. No AL team wins more than 89 games. No team wins more than 92 games. Except the Nats, who win 101. With a negative-two-win adjustment for their awful manager.

The Marlins project to contend for a Wild Card spot, even with “only” three wins from Jose Fernandez. 13+ WAR from their outfielders certainly help. I have the Mets at 77 wins, but if Matt Harvey is healthy and dominant again and the bullpen is even average, they could be a better-than-average team. Both of those teams’ playoff hopes hinge on taking advantage of their games against Atlanta and Philly to offset their games against Washington.

The Phillies, with 66 wins, look like the worst team in the league. I’m sure this is an optimistic projection.

NL Central
1. St. Louis
2. Pittsburgh (WC1)
3. Chicago
4. Milwaukee
5. Cincinnati

It doesn’t feel right saying this, but this might be the strongest division in baseball in 2015. The Cards are a force as usual, with Jason Heyward stepping in as their best player, possibly making an MVP push under a coaching staff that has made stars out of so many scrubs.

The Pirates are solid all over the field, projecting for more than one WAR out of every offensive position. If Gerrit Cole emerges as an ace and they get anything out of the back end of the rotation, they could contend for the division.

The Cubs may suffer from my prediction’s ignorance of minor league numbers. My system gives a total of three WAR to Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez, mostly in the form of subjective bonuses. It’s entirely possible that they’ll all undergo growing pains and the Cubs will be bad for one more year, but it’s also possible that Bryant hits like he has this spring and the Epstein-Maddon dynasty in Chicago begins now.

I see the Brewers and Reds winning 81 and 80 games, respectively, and both are capable of more. More likely, injuries will drag down one of the non-Cardinal teams in this division and they’ll struggle to win 70 games, but they all have the pieces to make a run at 90.

NL West
1. Los Angeles
2. San Francisco (WC2)
3. San Diego
4. Colorado
5. Arizona

I’ve seen it posited that the Dodgers are the equal of the Nationals, poised for a 100-win season. While I see them winning the division as usual, I don’t see the same magic I saw a few years ago. Even if he hadn’t been traded, the promise of a 40-40 season from Matt Kemp has gone the way of the 300-game-winner. Hanley Ramirez is back on the other coast. Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and newcomers Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick are all over 30 and unikely to put up another peak season. While there’s so much to love about Kershaw and Puig, the pitching could lack depth if Hyun-jin Ryu’s injury is serious, and this isn’t a team that’s going to score 850 runs. They’re good, but vulnerable.

I’m always surprised by the Giants’ success, as the whole seems to much greater than its parts. This year, I’m throwing them a two-win bonus for Bruce Bochy and a third for a solid bullpen, bringing their otherwise-average roster to 85 wins, within two of the Dodgers. This includes aggressive projections for the injured Hunter Pence (3.2 WAR), Brandon Crawford (2.5), and Joe Panik (2.0), but it’s appropriately conservative with the rotation, not expecting as many as two WAR from anyone but Bumgarner.

Despite all the Padres’ upgrades, I don’t quite buy them as a contender, as their rotation could be shaky and their outfield defense looks atrocious. I see Justin Upton topping 3 WAR, but no other position player contributing more than 2.5. They’re still better than the Rockies, who have no pitching, and the Diamondbacks, who don’t have much of anything beyond Paul Goldschmidt.

AL East
1. Baltimore
2. Boston (WC2)
3. New York
4. Toronto
5. Tampa Bay

This division is just impossible to project. The Orioles lost their best reliever, their best home run hitter, and their former face-of-the-franchise leadoff man, and failed to bolster their rotation. Still, they should get major steps forward from Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis if they’re healthy. With a little Showalter magic, I see 87 wins and a hard-fought division title.

The Red Sox are trying to win with depth, which my system may not fully appreciate, since it doesn’t dock other teams who are more likely to see negative WAR from injury replacements and other role players. The Sox seem to have multiple good players ready to play every position, which is enviable on the surface, but it will put John Farrell in a difficult place trying to find plate appearances for so many borderline stars. The rotation is deep and good enough to win games if they’re scoring a lot of runs, but there will be pressure on the gloves of Xander Bogaerts and Pablo Sandoval with all these ground-ball pitchers on the mound. The bullpen could struggle too if Koji Uehara isn’t healthy and effective. This could be another 100-win juggernaut or another 70-win bust. I’ll take the middle road and predict 85 wins, just enough to steal the last playoff spot.

The Yankees have the division’s best pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen, but their lineup is untested in the middle infield and elderly everywhere else. If Brett Gardiner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann bounce back with big seasons and Michael Pineda gives them anything, they’re contenders. If the luck they’ve had with injury replacements these past two years wears off, they could be ticketed for the basement.

I might have picked the Blue Jays to win the division before Marcus Stroman got hurt. Now I see 80 wins. That seems harsh, but they’re asking a lot of two old pitchers and a bunch of young ones and hoping Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin deliver the goods which which they surprised A’s and Pirates fans over the past two years.

The Rays might be good again. I’m not convinced.

AL Central
1. Cleveland
2. Detroit
3. Kansas City
4. Chicago
5. Minnesota

Without the relief pitching and managerial adjustments, the Tigers take another division crown, but isn’t that the story of the 2010s Tigers? Cleveland has a far better manager in Terry Francona and a solid bullpen, enough to vault them to 87 wins, while the Tigers project a fraction of a win behind the Red Sox for the last playoff spot. This may be the last year of Detroit’s championship window, so don’t be surprised if they make a major splash at the trade deadline and claim one more crown.

Kansas City needs to find a lot of the magic they had last year, whether that means repeat performances from Lorenzo Cain and Sal Perez or resurgence from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. They didn’t get better in the offseason, but Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy might emerge as the aces the Royals need to win their first division title since before either was born.

Chicago filled a lot of holes, but a few remain, including at least one outfield spot and most of the bullpen. The Twins, despite an awful rotation, aren’t a terrible team, projecting for 76 wins.

AL West
1. Anaheim
2. Seattle (WC1)
3. Oakland
4. Houston
5. Texas

I was surprised to see the Angels with the best projected record (89-73) in the American League, but when everyone’s bunched together, it helps to have a 10-win player in the fold. Without Trout, they’re a below-average team. With him, they’re the best in the league. How very un-baseball.

Seattle is a real contender this year, combining the thump of Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager with the wizardry of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. What separates this team from prior iterations is a little depth, with Austin Jackson, Nelson Cruz, Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino projected for at least two wins and James Paxton primed to join that core.

Like Boston, Oakland’s depth might be missed here, but I don’t see how they find enough wins on this post-Donaldson, post-Moss roster to make the playoffs again. Houston (77 projected wins) is getting better. Texas (74) isn’t.

Predicting short-series results seven months in advance is even more foolish than the preceding exercise, but that’s what I’m here for, right?

Pirates over Giants
Mariners over Red Sox

Nationals over Pirates
Cardinals over Dodgers
Mariners over Angels
Orioles over Indians

Nationals over Cardinals
Orioles over Mariners

Nationals over Orioles, four to negative twelve.

Posted in Angels, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Indians, Mariners, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates, Predictions, Red Sox | 3 Comments

Whatever Happened to the Great AL Shortstop?

It looks like the Golden Era for shortstops is over.

From 1984 to 1996, there was little debate about who should start the All-Star Game at shortstop for the American League.  Cal Ripken, Jr. was always healthy, always playing, and often worthy of the start.  Even when the numbers suggested someone else was more worthy, the fans voted for Cal.

By the time Ripken hung up his cleats, four superstar shortstops were emerging in the AL.  Over the next nine seasons, Miguel Tejada started one All-Star Game and played in two more.  Nomar Garciaparra started one and played in four more.  Alex Rodriguez started four games and played in the other five.  Derek Jeter started the other three games and played in three more.  As newspaper ink gave way to virtual ink, perhaps more was virtually spilled on the shortstop revolution than on any other baseball topic.  In the greatest era for offense since the early 1930s, if not ever, teams no longer sought out the good-glove, no-bat shortstop if a slugger was available who could stand between second and third for eight or nine innings without embarrassing himself.

By 2006, Rodriguez was a third baseman, Garciaparra was in the National League, and Tejada was a defensive liability having his last great offensive season.  Jeter, meanwhile, was the captain of the team that had played in six of the last ten World Series and was enjoying a bit of a comeback.  There was no logical choice but Jeter to start that year’s All-Star Game.  Over the next eight years, if Jeter was remotely healthy, he started the midsummer classic. Asdrubal Cabrera and JJ Hardy each stole one when Jeter was out with a long-term injury, but even when Jeter was a shadow of him former self, the fans voted him in for old times’ sake.

2015 begins the post-Jeter era, when the starting All-Star shortstop vote may again be something like a meritocracy.  After decades of superstar shortstops dominating the ballot, there’s no preordained choice this year.  When I compiled my list of the 100 best players in baseball earlier this week, five National League shortstops were featured, but no AL shortstop made the list.  I awarded four of them honorable mentions, each arguably worthy of a spot toward the end of the list, but none stood out from the pack.  Here are several shortstops who might convince voters they deserve the starting nod in 2015:

Elvis Andrus, Rangers – This list is ordered by alphabet, not by likelihood. Andrus had the worst season of his career in terms of batting average, on-base percentage, stolen base success rate, and Fangraphs’ defensive runs above average in 2015. That said, he’s only 26, and if the Rangers still believe in him despite the glut of middle infielders at their disposal, it’s possible that he bounces back to the 4-WAR form he displayed at 22, 23, and 24, excelling in all facets of the game.

Erick Aybar, Angels – Aybar was probably the best shortstop in the AL in 2014, earning 4.1 WAR as a key component of the AL’s best team.  At 31, he should still be a solid player in ’15, but he’s not a star on Tejada’s level, let alone Jeter’s.

Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox – At the midpoint last season, Bogaerts had a case as the league’s best shortstop.  From there, the wheels fell off.  The Red Sox signed Stephen Drew, moved Bogaerts to third base, and he stopped hitting and fielding for a hellacious stretch.  It may take a few years before the 22-year-old emerges as a star, but it’s also possible that he breaks out this year and starts a Ripken-like run of ASG starts.

Alcides Escobar, Royals – Escobar always had the defensive reputation.  Last year, he added some offense, hitting .285 with 31 steals and leading off throughout the Royals’ run to Game Seven of the World Series.  If nothing else, he certainly got the attention of some fans who will look for a post-Jeter hole to punch on their ballots.

JJ Hardy, Orioles – The best shortstop in the AL this year is probably playing about forty feet to Hardy’s right.  While Manny Machado hones his bat as a third baseman, the Orioles will settle for another guy who might be the league’s best shortstop.  Hardy is a league-average hitter, but his glove has been great enough than he’s been worth over three wins each of the last four seasons, something no other AL shortstop can claim.

Jed Lowrie, Astros – Of all these choices, Lowrie is the closest to the Jeter/Garciaparra/Tejada mold. He’s slugged .526 and he’s topped 15 homers twice despite never playing as many as 100 games in a season until 2013, but he’s never been mistaken for Rey Ordonez with the leather. If he’s healthy, he could put up the offensive numbers All-Star voters like, though it’s unlikely he’ll match these other guys from a value standpoint.

Alexei Ramirez, White Sox – Ramirez may be the most well-rounded shortstop in the league, with some power (99 career home runs), decent batting averages (.277 career), big-league speed (118 steals) and an elite glove. On the flip side, he can’t draw a walk, so if he hits .260 instead of .280, he’s a league-average player.

Jose Reyes, Blue Jays – Reyes is probably the most accomplished shortstop in the league.  Still just 31, Reyes has had separate seasons in which he batted .337, stole 78 bases, hit 19 triples, and accumulated 5.8 WAR. If he approaches some of those marks again this year, he’s probably an All-Star.

Danny Santana, Twins – Again, the alphabet, but Santana might just be my pick.  In just 101 games in 2014, split between shortstop and centerfield, the 24-year-old Santana was worth an impressive 3.9 WAR, hitting .319 and stealing 20 bases.  Reyes may be the past champ, Aybar was probably the best last year, Bogaerts may have the best future, but Santana feels like the AL’s best shortstop in 2015.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. The next AL All-Star shortstop could be a young player like Jose Iglesias, Brad Miller, Marcus Semien, or even Jeter’s replacement, Didi Gregorius.  And if no one emerges as the perpetually obvious choice, well, sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised.

Posted in All-Star Game, Angels, Astros, Blue Jays, Orioles, Predictions, Rangers, Red Sox, Royals, Twins, White Sox | 1 Comment

2015 Top 100 Players

It’s that time of year. All the big-name free agents have signed somewhere. Pitchers are pitching. Catchers are catching. It’s time to write about baseball in 2015.

As a prelude to my 2015 season preview, I thought I’d take a stab at ranking the game’s best players. Why? Well, for one, this is the kind of thing I think about when I’m falling asleep, when I’m in the shower, and when I’m driving to work. Second, projecting how well players will play this year establishes a framework for predicting how well teams will play. And finally, one question has been nagging at me since Max Scherzer signed the biggest deal of the offseason: By how much are the Nationals the best team in baseball? A couple games? A bunch of games? (Nats fans [and Mariners fans] might want to skip the next one.) By a crazy, 2001 Mariners-type margin?

I thought I’d tackle this question by building something like a homemade ZIPS framework. I took every player I expect to get regular playing time this year, excluding relievers, who likely won’t accumulate enough value to crack the top 100, and recorded his age and WAR (per fangraphs) for each of the last three seasons. I created a raw WAR (sweet palindrome, eh?) figure based on the formula (2014 WAR * 4 + 2013 WAR * 2 + 2012 WAR)/7, then adjusted based on the player’s age. Age adjustments are based on work I did for this post, which uses historical data to place players somewhere along an aging curve where, for instance, a 24-year-old gets a 15.6% raise on his raw WAR and a 34-year-old takes a 14.5% cut.

I then added a subjective adjustment between -1 and 1 WAR, which could come as the result of one of several cases. For instance, Manny Machado is still 22. In 2012, he broke into the league with 1.3 WAR. In 2013, he broke out with 6.3. Last year, he missed most of the season with an injury and settled for 2.5 WAR. The age adjustment boosts his raw 3.4 to a projected 4.1. If he’s healthy this year, I expect him to play like he did in 2013, but recognizing that I know more about some players than others, I’d rather let objective data drive this discussion than speculate blindly. I gave him a modest .8-WAR positive adjustment.

On the flip side, a player like Justin Verlander, who’s clearly regressing faster than the average 31-year-old (7.1, 5.2, and 3.3 WAR since ’12) benefits disproportionately from a framework that sees him bouncing back up to 4.1 WAR, so I docked him the full point. I’ll explain some of the subjective adjustments as I roll through the rankings.

My system is admittedly imperfect, as it sells short several types of players.  Those who broke out last year after low-value prior seasons are still weighed down by prior years (in which many of them got very few PA or IP).  Second-year players like Mookie Betts and Jorge Soler are projected only based on a partial season’s worth of value and a subjective adjustment.  For that reason, my list is skewed toward players in their primes (sorry, Cubs).

Enough babble. Let’s rank these dudes.

First, some honorable mentions. This includes everyone projected at 3.1 wins, a tenth of a win behind #100, which is a virtual tie, and a few players between 2.5 and 3 who are notable for one reason or another.

Honorable mention pitchers included those on the rise, like Gerrit Cole, Drew Hutchison, and Michael Wacha, established stars like Hisashi Iwakuma, Alex Cobb, and Andrew Cashner, whom I could see finishing closer to 10th than 100th this year, and former aces like Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee.

Honorable mention position players also ranged from pre-prime- Danny Santana, AJ Pollock, Leonys Martin, Kevin Kiermaier, Mookie Betts, and George Springer- to post-prime- Joe Mauer, JJ Hardy, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Erick Aybar, and Brett Gardner- with guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Santana, Josh Reddick, and the intriguing Matt Wieters in between.

100. Billy Hamilton, SS, Reds – Last year’s most hyped NL rookie proved he could run like the Hall of Famer with the same name, but he’ll have to find ways to get on base and cut down on caught-stealings to add real value with his legs.  Even if he repeats his rookie campaign with no improvement, he’s probably a top-100 player.

99. Jose Fernandez, P, Marlins
98. Matt Harvey, P, Mets
– The race for second place in the NL East could hinge on how these two come back from Tommy John surgery.  Harvey was perhaps the best pitcher in the game when he went down in late summer, 2013, but with less than one season’s work on his resume, my system doesn’t like him as much as I do.   Like Harvey, Fernandez was one of the ten best pitchers in the game before his surgery.  He’s not due back until June or July, but if his arm is ready, he should be valuable enough over 15-20 starts to crack the top 100.  Harvey could be a top-20 guy.

97. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles – I’m not sure it’s a shortcoming of my system that it doesn’t know how to deal with Davis.  Does anyone?  He finally broke out with 6.8 WAR (aided by 53 home runs) at age 26, only to regress to .5 WAR at 27 (the suspension for amphetamines didn’t help).  He could easily be a top-25 guy again in 2015 or a guy looking for a job in 2016.

96. Doug Fister, P, Nationals
95. Gio Gonzalez, P, Nationals
– Here we go with the Nats.  These are the last two pitchers in their rotation, in some order.  Tanner Roark only misses this list because I docked him a few tenths for likely pitching out of the bullpen for most of 2015.  The other four teams in the NL East have a total of three pitchers ranked higher than the Nats’ fifth starter (though I expect big things from Harvey, if not Fernandez as well).  Baseball isn’t fair.

94. Neil Walker, 2B, Pirates – Cutch gets all the attention, but the Pirates are sneaky good all over the field.  If I believed in their pitching, I might pick them to win the Central.

93. Dallas Keuchel, P, Astros – Have the Astros arrived?  They have two players in my top 100 (as many as the A’s, Rays, or Brewers), and three more in the next 50.  Keuchel heads up a rotation that should be at least adequate this year.

92. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds – How quickly great players fade.  Three years ago, while I was shaming ESPN for asserting that Albert Pujols was still the best player in the game despite obvious signs of decline, I still ranked Votto third.  He played well in ’12 and ’13, but injuries kept him off the field for much of 2014 and he wasn’t a great player when he was healthy.  I hope I regret ranking Votto this low, but a lot of great, slugging 29-year-old first basemen are not great players at 31.  See Pujols, Albert.

91. Desmond Jennings, CF, Rays – Better than Votto?  My systems thinks so because it loves his consistency.  It hard to argue that a 28-year-old who was worth 3.2, 3.3, and 3.2 WAR the last three years won’t be worth something a little better than three wins this year.

90. Matt Holliday, LF, Cardinals –  A consistent force, Holliday’s shown some signs of decline in recent years, but still offers plenty of value at 35.  The Cardinals landed seven players on this list, more than any team besides the Nats.

89. Marcell Ozuna, CF, Marlins – Ichiro’s quest for 3,000 hits seems to be riding on the possibility that one of the Marlins’ outfielders gets injured, as all three are young and, if they can build on last season’s individual successes, among the 100 best players in the game.

88. Rick Porcello, P, Red Sox – Boston’s no-stars, no-scrubs approach will see Porcello leap from fringe fifth starter in Detroit to ace status in Boston in two years.

87. Jacob deGrom, P, Mets – I have no idea if deGrom is for real, but it was hard to keep last year’s NL Rookie of the Year off this list after a 3-WAR inaugural campaign.

86. Denard Span, CF, Nationals – The one Nat whose presence in the top 100 surprised me.  I knew Span could run, and that he uses the bunt about as well as anyone in the league, but he’s actually a good all-around player, with a .355 OBP last year and excellent defensive numbers in his past.

85. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays – Huge bat, not much else.  When the bat speed goes, it’s going to get ugly quickly for E5.  Here’s guessing the Jays get at least one more year of mashing.

84. Justin Upton, LF, Padres – I’m not sure what to do with the packed San Diego outfield, but Upton seems a safe bet for an everyday job.  Can he launch balls out of Petco?  If the Pads are serious about contending, he better be able to.

83. Jayson Werth, RF, Nationals – Ho hum, just another National among the top seven or eight guys at his position.

82. Hanley Ramirez, LF, Red Sox – I can see Ramirez struggling defensively with the Green Monster and American League pitching and beginning his descent into mediocrity. I can also see him freed from the demands of the shortstop position, taking aim at that same monster with his bat, and beginning a career renaissance.

81. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies – As damaging as pitching at Coors can be, I’d love to be a Rockies pitcher who only pitches on the road and gets Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki, and D.J. LeMahieu behind him every night. Nolan can hit a little too, and at 23, he may be on his way to superstardom.

80. Julio Teheran, P, Braves – An ace in the making, on a team that won’t get him many wins this year, even if he does achieve a career-high WAR, as I predict he will.

79. Zack Greinke, P, Dodgers – At just 31, Greinke’s been a head case, a runaway Cy Young winner, a FIP-beater, and a disappointment. In 2015, I’m guessing he’s just an excellent starter on an excellent team.

78. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Dodgers – I’m as surprised as you are. Kendrick was worth 4.6 WAR last year, and moves to the weakest division in the big leagues.

77. Jake Arrieta, P, Cubs – After struggling in Baltimore, Arrieta was a surprise breakout star in Chicago last year. He’s still only 28, and may be entering his prime on a team that’s almost ready to contend.

76. Brian Dozier, 2B, Twins – The AL’s worst team actually lands two players on this list and two honorable mentions. Dozier, who broke out in a big way in 2014, may be the list’s biggest surprise.

75. Hyun-Jin Ryu, P, Dodgers – I’m not sure I believe Ryu is the second-best pitcher on the Dodgers, but with Brandon McCarthy in the fold, I do believe they have the second-best rotation in the National League.

74. Jeff Samardzija, P, White Sox – The White Sox might not be much better than Shark’s Cubs were last year, but he’s bound to get a win before the All-Star break this time around if he pitches well at all.

73. Lance Lynn, P, Cardinals – Is Lynn a breakout candidate, or has he already broken out? Either way, he’s sandwiched between Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha in another solid Cardinals rotation.

72. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Braves – I’m of the belief that Simmons doesn’t have to hit at all to be among the game’s best shortstops, as his glove is once-in-a-generation. He didn’t hit much in 2014, but he’s hinted at the presence of a bat, and if he can find even a decent one, he’s Ozzie Smith.

71. James Shields, P, Padres – Shields has lived in the space between serviceable pitcher and ace for several years, and his struggles in the 2014 playoffs didn’t help move him toward acedom, but pitching half his games at Petco might make him feel like one.

70. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tigers – After looking a bit washed up toward the end of his Texas tenure, Kinsler rebounded with a 5.4-WAR season in 2014. Don’t expect another at age 32, but he’s still a very good player.

69. Josh Harrison, 3B/RF, Pirates – His positional versatility may be overrated, but Harrison can reach base, steal a base, and turn batted balls into outs. He’s immensely valuable at either position.

68. Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds – I’m not in the business of predicting breakouts, but he’s a breakout prediction: Mesoraco hits 30 homers and emerges as the Reds’ best player in 2015.

67. Johnny Cueto, P, Reds – Of course, there’s always this guy, who might have contended for the Cy Young in the non-Kershaw league last year. Fangraphs doesn’t love his low-strikeout version of run prevention, but he’s done it consistently for years now.

66. Christian Yelich, LF, Marlins – Another exciting young outfielder working in Miami. If they’re not a contender this year, expect the Marlins to be in the Wild Card chase by ’16.

65. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals – Among the game’s best and most popular players in 2012 and ’13, Molina took a step back last year, always a concern for a catcher, whose body takes about six three-hour beatings a week. Could he be finished as a top-100 guy?

64. David Wright, 3B, Mets – In this exercise before the 2012 season, I left Wright out of my top 100, citing an apparent early decline. Naturally, he bounced back with two of the best seasons of his career. At 32, I don’t see another 7-win year, but he should be top 100 if he’s healthy.

63. Salvador Perez, C, Royals – Last year, Perez looked like the best all-around catcher in the AL for much of the season, then looked completely washed up by late October, when he popped out to end the World Series. A winter off and a more reasonable workload in 2015 should restore him to the star he’s become.

62. Yordano Ventura, P, Royals – James Shields skipping town puts the Royals’ next true ace in position to make an opening-day start.

61. Sonny Gray, P, A’s – Feels like he should be higher than this, doesn’t it? He’s put up sunny raw numbers- 2.99 ERA, 3.29 FIP- but park adjustments cast a gray cloud over them (just 4.8 WAR in 283 big-league innings). He’s still only 25, and should be a force of nature for years to come.

60. Marcus Stroman, P, Blue Jays – Stroman was about the 300th guy I thought of when I built this list. I had no idea he was worth 3.3 WAR in just 130 innings in a hybrid role last year (his 2.84 FIP helped). At 23, he may already be the Jays’ best starter.

59. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Yankees – He’ll never recreate his 2011 season, but I predict a bit of a bounceback for Jacoby as he adjusts to his new surroundings in 2015.

58. Garrett Richards, P, Angels – With a full season of domination on his resume, my system would have liked Richards even more. The Angels would love to see him hold up through the playoffs this year.

57. Cole Hamels, P, Phillies – At 31, playing for perhaps the worst team in baseball, will Hamels show signs of decline this year? If so, he’ll be coming down from quite a peak.

56. Anibal Sanchez, P, Tigers – He might have been the best pitcher in the AL in 2013 before missing time with injuries in ’14. After letting one ace go, dealing a budding ace, and watching a third deteriorate, the Tigers could use a return to excellence from Sanchez.

55. Juan Lagares, CF, Mets – It seems that each year, someone new- Franklin Gutierrez, Peter Bourjos, and Jackie Bradley come to mind- emerges as the best defensive outfielder in the game, only to struggle with the bat and fade from view. Here’s guessing that Lagares hits enough to cement that reputation.

54. Russell Martin, C, Blue Jays – The key to the Blue Jays resurgence? Most recent World Series champs have had a superstar catcher- Posey, Molina, Posada… The Jays have built great rosters in recent years, but haven’t had a backstop like Martin.

53. Jhonny Peralta, SS, Cardinals – “Sic” was sick with the glove in ’14, and while he may not be worth 5.4 WAR again this year, he won’t need to be to be among the game’s top five shortstops.

52. Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals – The only player in the top 100 I gave the full 1-point subjective bonus. It feels like he hasn’t broken out yet, but he’s been one of the greatest 21-and-under players in baseball history. Here’s guessing he takes it to another level at 22 and this ranking looks like an insult.

51. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros – I doubt he’ll hit .341 or steal 56 bases again, but even .300 and 40, with doubles power and average second-base defense, should be good for 3-to-4 wins.

50. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays – The last time I ranked the 100 best players in the game, he was number one. I need to do this more often.

49. Todd Frazier, 3B, Reds – Frazier is quietly emerging as of the NL’s best hitters, and his fielding and baserunning numbers have been good as well.

48. Yan Gomes, C, Indians – WAR tends to underrate catchers, so the best catcher in the American League would probably be a little higher on a list with more subjective input.

47. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox – As a Sox fan, I have a bad feeling about the second half of Pedroia’s career, as I’m afraid his play-through-everything attitude will catch up to him soon. I suppose I should sit back and enjoy the best player on the team while he’s still a star.

46. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees – He looked like a Cy Young contender until he got hurt last year. There may not be a better pitcher in the AL East.

45. Starling Marte, LF, Pirates – Like the Marlins, the Pirates put three outfielders in this top 100. Gregory Polanco is closer to making it four for Pittsburgh than Ichiro is for Miami.

44. Chase Headley, 3B, Yankees – Headley signed for just over half of what Pablo Sandoval, who missed this list by 23 spots, got from the Red Sox. October chances are worth a few bucks if you take advantage.

43. Hunter Pence, RF, Giants – Easily the gangliest, least baseballplayerlike player on the list. He’s this good though.

42. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays – Like me, Bautista’s 34. Only one older player finished higher on the list.

41. Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals – Can he continue his October breakout through the full regular season?

40. Adam Wainwright, P, Cardinals – He’s been the best non-Kershaw pitcher in the NL for most of Kershaw’s career. At 33, he’s probably on the decline, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll be bad in 2015.

39. Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals – At 27, he blossomed into a superstar overnight. At 28, he was more good-not-great until the NLDS. Who knows what he’ll do at 29?

38. Ian Desmond, SS, Nationals – Did you know Desmond had been worth 14 WAR over the past three seasons, almost three more wins than any other shortstop over that span?

37. Phil Hughes, P, Twins – In 2015, he stopped walking batters and became a Cy Young candidate. He wouldn’t have to be quite as good in ’15 to justify this ranking.

36. Jordan Zimmermann, P, Nationals – There are only 11 pitchers left on the list. We’re in the middle of the Nationals’ rotation.

35. Madison Bumgarner, P, Giants – If an underwhelming Giants team just won the World Series on the back of one pitcher, how is he just the 35th best player in the game? Baseball’s just that unpredictable. It actually took a strong subjective bonus (.6 points) to get Bumgarner this high, as park adjustments knock his numbers back to Earth. He’s just 25, though, and has proven he can handle tougher higher-leverage assignments than anything he’ll see in the regular season.

34. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves – Just one skill, but it’s a good one. Those homers might not drive in many runs in that Atlanta lineup this year, though.

33. Adam Jones, CF, Orioles – He’s overrated by Gold Glove voters, but he’s undeniably one of the best players on a team that keeps surprising us.

32. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers – The oldest player on this list (35), one of the six greatest third basemen of all time, and an ageless marvel we’re all blessed to have seen play.

31. Jon Lester, P, Cubs – Lester’s arrival in Chicago has elicited much hyperbole. The Cubs aren’t contenders yet. They’ve got one of the 10 or 15 best pitchers in the game, but when Bryant, Soler, and Baez are scoring runs in droves, he’ll be in his mid-thirties, hoping for another chance at October glory.

30. Jose Quintana, P, White Sox – Samardzija and Sale will get all the ink in Chicago this year, but the Pale Hose have another starter who had a 2.81 FIP last year. If he can keep home runs down in 2015 like he did in ’14, he’s the #2 starter in what might be the AL’s best rotation.

29. Stephen Strasburg, P, Nationals – Like Harper, it doesn’t really feel like Strasburg has “arrived”, but he’s been one of the game’s best pitchers over the last three years and could finally be Cy Young-worthy in 2015.

28. Yu Darvish, P, Rangers – Last season’s injury sidetracked what looked like it might be Darvish’s first Cy Young season. If he’s healthy, he’ll strike batters out like no one else in the AL.

27. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles – There’s no ceiling to Machado’s talent. He’s 22, he’s already had a 6-win season, he should keep growing as a hitter, and he’s capable of playing shortstop.

26. Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners – Another quietly budding superstar, Seager can pop a homer (25 last year), draw a walk (52), and pick it at the hot corner (12.9 fielding runs above average).

25. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs – At 25, Rizzo is the elder statesman in the Cubs lineup, fully formed and ready to guide the young bats toward October.

24. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies – One of the great tragedies of modern baseball is that perhaps its second most talented player has only played as many as 130 games once since 2010. If he’s healthy, he’s the MVP frontrunner.

23. Alex Gordon, LF, Royals – His WAR depends a little heavily on defense for some fans’ tastes, but he hits, he runs the bases, and he’s reinventing the limits of left field defense. Now he’s even doing it for a playoff team.

22. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks – Enough of these jacks-of-all-trades. Golschmidt is a slugger in the classic model, and he should be healthy and ready to terrorize the National League again in 2015.

21. Ben Zobrist, 2B/Util, A’s – The A’s traded away most of their talent this offseason, only to reel in a utility man in late winter who will immediately be their best player.

20. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers – I thought Lucroy was the most valuable player in the NL last season. It’s hard to imagine him being as good again, but this ranking doesn’t presume that he will be.

19. Jose Abreu, DH, White Sox – Adam LaRoche’s arrival moves Abreu to DH this year, stripping a small portion of his value, but there’s no reason to believe the AL’s best hitter in ’14 won’t rake again in his second full year in the bigs.

18. Michael Brantley, LF, Indians – Was his 2014 breakout for real? He’s no Mike Trout, but he’s within a few ticks of Trout’s ability in every facet of the game.

17. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners – After Trout and Cabrera, Cano has been the most valuable player in the AL over the last three seasons. At 32, he looks like he may have a few more great years left.

16. David Price, P, Tigers – Price will be under some pressure to replace several other aces as the team transitions from knowing the AL Central is theirs and focusing on the playoffs to striving to win a tough division.

15. Jason Heyward, RF, Cardinals – There’s no replacing the promise that was Oscar Taveras in St. Louis, but the Cards went out and got one of the game’s best defensive outfielders and a guy with the potential to be an elite bat as well.

14. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers – He’s obviously in decline, but Cabrera should still be one of the league’s best hitters once he’s fully healthy again.

13. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers – If he can avoid moments of disconnection from the game, like most of last September, Puig could win his first of multiple MVPs in 2015.

12. Max Scherzer, P, Nationals – All the drama in Washington’s regular season should revolve around Matt Williams. Will he start Scherzer, Strasburg, or Zimmermann on opening day? Will he keep punishing Harper for not running into walls? Will he give way to a competent manager before the postseason?

11. Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers – Is Gomez the best athlete in MLB? He steals bases (111 the last three years), crushes baseballs (66 homers), and tracks down fly balls hit anywhere (40.6 fielding runs above average).

10. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals – There you have it. Ten of the 100 best players in baseball right now play in Washington. Who would have guessed Rendon would be a top-ten guy before Harper would?

9. Corey Kluber, P, Indians – Perhaps if Kluber hadn’t gotten his due as AL Cy Young in 2014, he’d be hungrier in ’15. Regardless, he should pitch meaningful games in August and September this year, headlining a strong, young rotation that could lead the Tribe to the postseason.

8. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays – Donaldson came out of nowhere, and Billy Beane’s willingness to trade him for what looked like less makes me wonder if he’s primed to fade back into obscurity, but the numbers say he’s the best infielder in the game, and these projections are all about the numbers.

7. Chris Sale, P, White Sox – Even if his skinny body leads him to the Pedro Martinez ending, Sale is already maybe the best pitcher in the AL and still on the rise at age 25.

6. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins – If he comes back strong after getting hit in the face with a pitch last fall, Stanton should pick up where he left off, whacking 40 homers and playing solid defense in right field.

5. Felix Hernandez, P, Mariners – Will this be another year in which fans think Hernandez deserves the Cy Young but he doesn’t win it, or another year in which he wins it, but fans think someone else should have won?

4. Buster Posey, C, Giants – When future generations look back and wonder how the Giants won three World Series in five years, pitching will probably be the first answer, but Posey will be the lone superstar who played for San Francisco throughout.

3. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates – McCutchen is not only the game’s premier spokesman right now, he’s also one of its most consistently great players, playing at an MVP level each of the last three seasons.

2. Clayton Kershaw, P, Dodgers – The Mike Trout of pitching. He’s the best and no one else is particularly close.

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels – Trout seems to have been downgraded from “Willie Mays wishes he could have had the career Trout’s about to have” to “hopefully Al Kaline, maybe even Mickey Mantle”. Still, even after bulking up and losing some of his defensive edge and developing a bit of a strikeout problem, Trout is the best player in the game by so much that I docked him .7 points in the subjective adjustment and he still topped Kershaw’s projection by 2.5 wins.

There you have it. It would appear that there’s quite a gap between the Nats and the field. I’ll address that further in my next post. For now, tell me why I’m a fool for ranking somebody somewhere.

Posted in Cardinals, Nationals, Predictions | 4 Comments